Only a few days to go: We’re raising £25,000 to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can hold their elected representatives to account.Donate to our crowdfunder
It is great to be back here, speaking in another Finance Bill debate—especially when we know that yet another is likely to be just around the corner, in March, if there is a no-deal Brexit and there then has to be what the Chancellor euphemistically calls “a fiscal event”.
As we heard from Peter Dowd, this Budget was a continuation of austerity. We continue to have the benefits freeze, we continue to have the rape clause, and we continue to have cuts in Government Departments. The Scottish Government fiscal resource block grant allocation will have been cut by 6.9% in real terms between 2010-11 and next year, and the Barnett allocation for health has not been passed on in full, despite repeated assurances from the Government that it would be.
Next week we will get into the nitty-gritty of the Finance Bill. Breaking with the tradition so far in the debate, I am going to talk a lot about the measures that are in the Bill, and about some of the aspects that concern me. I shall talk a fair bit about process as well. As the hon. Member for Bootle said, there have been real issues in relation to process, in this Bill more than in previous Finance Bills.
Paper copies of the Bill were not made available until Wednesday, when the House was in recess and those of us who do not live in London were mostly not in London. I had to go to the people in the Vote Office and ask them to post a copy to me. They did post it to me, which was terribly kind of them. However, I had already had to ensure that the Scottish National party’s reasoned amendment was tabled before I had seen any copy of the Bill, let alone a paper copy. The process was not fit for purpose. It is not right that we should have to table amendments before seeing a Bill, and I implore the Minister to ensure that it does not happen again. If it does, we will protest even more vociferously.
There are other issues relating to process. The Chartered Institute of Taxation has said:
“Just 37 of the 90 substantive clauses in the Bill, and 12 of the 19 lengthy schedules, were included in the draft bill published for consultation over the summer.”
It is unusual for so few measures to be consulted on, but what is even more unusual is the timescale. The Government are expecting external organisations to digest clauses that they have never seen before and then to comment on them, in advance of the Committee of the whole House, which we expect to be on Monday and Tuesday next week. Having had the Bill in their hands for less than a week and a half, they will be expected to make serious suggestions for improving it. Let us not forget that the purpose of the scrutiny is to try to make the legislation better. In fact, the Government have pointed out that two measures in the Finance Bill exist to correct errors made in previous years. The Government made errors in previous years when there was a more lengthy consultation process for most of the measures, so I contend that there are likely to be even more errors in this Finance Bill given that it has not had external scrutiny due to tight timescales.
On that point—the Minister probably knows what I am going to say now—we need to have evidence sessions in the Public Bill Committee. If we are not going to have enough time for appropriate scrutiny in writing that is provided to MPs in advance, it is even more important, especially this year, that external organisations give evidence in the Public Bill Committee. I will move an amendment to that effect when we come to the programme motion. Members across the House have voiced support for the Committee taking public evidence. The problems raised by the Government regarding the fact that we will already have had Committee of the whole House by that point are realistic ones when it comes to the measures going before a Committee of the whole House, but we would still benefit from scrutiny of the measures that are going to Public Bill Committee. If the Minister could find a way, through the programme motion, for the Public Bill Committee to begin with an evidence session including organisations such as the CIOT and the Association of Accounting Technicians, it would be incredibly appropriate and even more necessary than usual this year.
As is noted in the Opposition amendment, there is no amendment of the law resolution, which means that any amendments to the Budget have to be tight in relation to the Budget resolutions. That means that we table an awful lot of amendments saying, “We’re calling for a review into this”, and then the Government stand up in the Public Bill Committee and say, “Why would we do a review? You’re only calling for a review. You’re not calling for anything tangible.” But we cannot call for anything tangible because the Government have tied our hands. I have made this point before and I will make it again: the Government must remember that they will not be in government forever. When they are in opposition and the same thing is being done to them, they will be standing up and complaining about it. They have caused this problem and opened these floodgates, and it is really bad for transparency and scrutiny if they keep behaving like this.
Clause 5 is about the personal allowance and the basic rate allowance, and the Government have chosen not to separate out the reserved and devolved matters in this clause. Now, I get that we have not had this devolved situation for particularly long, so this may be an oversight by the Government, but I implore them to ensure that in future years these matters are dealt with in separate clauses. It would be easy for them to do that. Indeed, it would also be easier for Mr Speaker, because he would be able to certify one part as English votes for English laws and not the other part, which is a reserved competency in relation to the personal allowance. This would make scrutiny and read-across better. It would just be a better process of making tax law if these two things were separated out. I ask that these points are taken into account the next time we have a Finance Bill, whether that is in March, October or November next year.
I sit on the European Statutory Instruments Committee, which is currently looking at the proposed negative instruments—it is riveting, honestly. As with lots of the legislation that is coming through just now, the Brexit clauses in the Bill allow the Minister further delegated powers. In fact, one of these clauses allows the Government to set spend for a new tax in relation to current pricing, without saying what that spend would be—I think that is around clause 80. John Redwood talked about taking back control, but parts of this legislation allow the Government more control and more unfettered power. It would actually be more sensible for this House to take decisions over how much spending should be allocated in this regard, rather than giving Ministers more control.
As hon. Members would expect, I am going to mention fixed odds betting terminals. The Government say that they cannot lower the stakes from April next year because it would not give companies enough time to prepare adequately for the changes required, yet they expect companies to prepare adequately for Brexit by April next year, despite not actually having told companies what Brexit will involve. If the Government are serious about making changes to fixed odds betting terminals, they need to stop listening to the lobby on this and start taking into account the public health benefits of the changes.